On Saturday I spent the day with Parish Safeguarding Reps from across the Diocese of Exeter. I spoke to them about my faith and I talked about it being the anchor of my soul. In God I have, in the words of the psalmist, ‘found my rock, my fortress and my deliverer. It is in God whom I take refuge’ (Psalm18:2). As the body of Christ we are called to reflect the nature of Christ, the nature of God and I believe that as churches, part of the body of Christ we are called to be places of safety, places in which people can take refuge. This is why I believe that safeguarding is at the heart of the gospel.
Something inside me weeps every time I hear when as a result of the abuse of power in the church someone has been hurt and accounts are coming all too often. Rosie Harper in her blog on Via Media news talks about the apparent shift in the current political climate that “people have begun to talk about their experiences of being harassed, abused or criminally attacked, with an openness that wasn’t acceptable even a few months ago”. She makes the point, fairly, that whistleblowers still lose their jobs, and women can be mercilessly interrogated in court to search out a way of framing their assault as ‘they were asking for it’. This has to change.
You may have seen BBC One’s Have I got News For You on Friday night where it took Jo Brand – the only woman on the show – to say why those relentless comments putting women down as well as sexual harassment itself are not acceptable. We have to change our underlying environment so it is clear that sexual abuse, harassment and such comments are simply not acceptable.
The former Bishop of Liverpool, James Jones was asked about this issue in reference to his new Hillsborough report on how public institutions should treat the relatives of people killed in tragedies. He said that there needs to be a culture change in all our institutions and spoke of how the Hillsborough families felt ‘dehumanised’ when they challenged people in authority. He is absolutely right that we need to sit down and ask what does happen when an individual complains and what should happen? This is an urgent question for the Church.
Abuse almost always occurs as a result of the imbalance of power. When Dame Moira Gibb published earlier this year An Abuse of Power (the report into the serious sexual wrong doing of Peter Ball, a bishop of the Church of England) she spoke of the abuse of power. Dame Moira pointed to the Church having made significant progress in recent years in understanding abuse and in its safe guarding practice. Whilst recognizing we have some way to go, she highlighted the fact that trust accorded to clergy and bishops can bring an exceptional level of power. Different kinds of power constellate around clergy: the power of ritual leadership, the power of being entrusted with intimate secrets, the power of having the strongest voice both in making the community’s critical decisions and in shaping culture and attitudes. (The Gospel of Sexual Abuse and the Church The Faith and Order Commission) Clergy don’t always acknowledge such power but we have to be accountable for how we use it – that can only be by following the pattern of Christ doing nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regarding others as better than ourselves. Looking not to our own interests, but to the interests of others (Philippians 2:4).
Jayne Ozanne’s interview on Channel 4, disclosing the abuse she suffered, made difficult listening but she clearly identified why the culture in the church must change. We have to encourage people to speak up and we have to say that any abuse of power is wrong – but where do people who want to speak out go to find places of safety? Progress has been made in developing professional safe guarding teams who are accessible across the church but we need to ask ourselves what more should we do? Do we need a national helpline or access to other support services to supplement what we already have?
The Church needs to own a safe culture; we have come a long way where increasingly people understand their responsibility and I would not want to lose this, which will be the risk if we hand over safeguarding to an independent body. However I think we should search ourselves to see if there is more we can do to ensure independent monitoring. We are already committed to implementing the Elliott Review recommendations which propose that safeguarding decisions as they occur across the Church, should be subject to review by an independent body. This review was an important milestone in the Church’s Safeguarding journey.
The Church is made up of individuals and each one of us needs to commit to following the pattern of Christ, a pattern of the incarnation, the pattern of humility and look to the interests of others. We need to ensure that the church is not only safe, but is a place where everyone can flourish.